Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for April 14th, 2012

Seeing Mona Lisa in her original context

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Fascinating to toy with the picture slider.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 April 2012 at 2:50 pm

Posted in Art

Bubble observation

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The gas bubble in my left eyeball, floating above/on the vitreous fluid, is shrinking almost visibly at this point. Certainly it’s now much smaller than it was this morning. My appointment with the retina surgeon who implanted the bubble is on Monday, and as usual, they’ve been through this before and they know precisely when to schedule return appointments. There’s something to be said for traversing well-traveled ground. I’m sure the bubble will be completely gone by Monday afternoon.

At first I was startled at how fast it’s shrinking, but it makes sense if the absorption of the gas is at a relatively constant rate: the change in area of the gas/fluid interface for a given change in volume of gas is negligible when the two volumes (bubble and fluid) are roughly equal, but as the bubble becomes very small—hovering right at the top of the eyeball—a relatively small shrinkage in volume produces a large shrinkage in area. If I were up on my calculus, I could calculate the curve, but it obviously gets very steep very fast at the end.  —  Heck, the bubble looks smaller than what it was when I started typing this.

I believe tomorrow will be bubble-free, and it’s about time. Pilates, here I come. New glasses, too.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 April 2012 at 2:19 pm

Posted in Daily life, Medical

More failures of US government

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Our government is increasingly demonstrating that it’s no longer able to govern effectively: the inability to resolve spending priorities, so we face another crisis this fall that may lead to sharp tax increases along with draconian program cuts. Moreover, the US current is unable to maintain its infrastructure, with more bridges heading for collapse (as blogged previously). The US has repeatedly entered wars in which victory is impossible (starting with Vietnam, but also consider the War on Drugs), and it is now showing that it cannot care for the men and women who fight those wars. Prosperity was within our grasp, and we muffed it. Look at this disheartening report from Aaron Glantz, which shows a government mired in almost Soviet-style incapability of getting jobs done, primarily because of endless defunding of government functions, thanks to the GOP determination to cut taxes by cutting all programs save those that serve the wealthy and powerful. His report begins:

Even after Ian Rodriguez left the Marine Corps in 2006, he still felt like he was in Iraq.

The burly veteran, who played defensive end on the College of San Mateo football team before joining the military, would sometimes wake up in the middle of the night at home in San Bruno and grab his girlfriend, putting both hands around her neck.

“I had no ill will toward her,” Mr. Rodriguez, 28, said in an interview, “but while I was asleep I felt like I was still back there, and I acted it out.” He said he slept with a .40-caliber Glock pistol under his pillow and drank a bottle of whiskey every night to help him forget the war and fall asleep.

In December 2006, Mr. Rodriguez filed a claim with the Department of Veterans Affairs, arguing that he deserved a monthly disability check and priority mental health care from the agency because of post-traumatic stress disorder. More than five years later, he is still waiting for a final determination on his case.

Mr. Rodriguez is one of 870,000 veterans nationwide who are waiting for a decision on a disability claim from the V.A. The waiting list has more than doubled since President Obama took office, despite the appropriation of more than $300 million for a new computer system and the hiring of thousands of claims professionals nationwide.

The problem is particularly acute in the Bay Area, where, according to figures provided by the V.A., returning soldiers wait an average of 313 days for a decision. Eighty percent must wait at least 125 days. Of the nearly 60 V.A. offices around the country, the Oakland office is the slowest.

“The place is filled with paper, piles of it, everywhere,” said Representative Jackie Speier, a Democrat from San Mateo who toured the Oakland office last month as part of a meeting with the agency’s regional director on behalf of a group of constituents with claims dating as far back as six years.

According to Ms. Speier, the backlog in Oakland has grown so severe that all new claims are immediately sent to V.A. offices in Lincoln, Neb., and Muskogee, Okla., where the backlog is less serious.

“It is an epidemic of delay,” Ms. Speier said. “I did not exactly leave invigorated.”

The Bay Citizen was denied a request to tour and photograph the department’s Oakland office and interview its director, Douglas Bragg. Mr. Bragg was unavailable for comment, according to Jessica Arifianto, an agency spokeswoman, but she released a statement from the office. [Typical government response: keep things secret to the extent possible; the next step (possibly not now, but it's where we're headed):  to send the FBI to investigate the Bay Citizen and seize their records and computers---the sort of "punishment by investigation" that is becoming increasingly common. - LG]

“We are continuously working to improve our timeliness and performance in our service to our veterans,” it said, citing “ongoing efforts” to improve the quality and timeliness of ratings decisions, including hiring additional staff members, using simpler forms and forming quality control teams. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 April 2012 at 11:40 am

Drone slaughter

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The US really is accumulating a lengthy list of things it does not want discussed. Latest: the civilian carnage from drone warfare. Murtaza Hussain writes in Salon:

“If the U.S. believes in the rule of law, it should not be hindering advocacy of claims against the CIA for wrongful death and injury.” Shahzad Akbar, a Pakistani lawyer and co-founder of the Pakistan based legal advocacy organization Foundation for Fundamental Rights (FFR) has been campaigning for the past several years on behalf of civilians who have been killed and maimed as part of the CIA’s covert drone warfare program in NW Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The drone campaign, which continues to be conducted without oversight and accountability, is documented to have taken a horrendous toll on the civilian population of these regions, the magnitude of which has only come to light through the efforts of grassroots activists such as Akbar.

The London based Bureau of Investigative Journalism has documented more than 160 cases of children who have been killed by CIA-operated Predator drones among over 800 confirmed civilian deaths. These are individuals with no connection to militancy whose lives have been ended by a clandestine program under which there is no known reprimand for inflicting civilian casualties. The free hand given to the CIA to kill in Northwest Pakistan has created a culture of near impunity where innocent civilians can be killed wantonly without fear of censure. Among the poorest and most disenfranchised people in Pakistan, those who live in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have little to no means of obtaining redress for harm which has been caused to them and lack the ability to even raise awareness of their plight. It is in this light that legal campaigners such as Akbar have taken it upon themselves to bring attention to those killed in the CIA campaign and to win some measure of legal protection for those innocent civilians who continue to be targeted. As Akbar described the conditions of the disenfranchised rural people whom he campaigns for; “People are scared….I’ve interviewed some neighbors whose next-door house was hit, and I could feel what they’re feeling, because they’re feeling this imminent threat. And they are actually feeling helpless at the same time, because they have no other place to relocate, because a lot of them have no skills, no education, so they cannot relocate in any other part of Pakistan.”

Akbar is a lawyer and his effort to obtain justice for dead and wounded Pakistani civilians is an absolutely legal, civil society campaign to see that those responsible are held accountable for abuses, and that innocent civilians whose lives have been destroyed see some legal redress. In this context it is reasonable to assume that if there is nothing illegal or otherwise unsavoury going on, the CIA and U.S. government should have no objection to Akbar’s work and should allow him to continue unimpeded. Akbar is far from an anti-American figure and in fact is a former consultant for USAID in Pakistan, who has in the past helped assist the FBI investigate terrorism cases in the country. However, the U.S. government has not embraced his efforts to provide oversight to the CIA drone program and in fact is actively moving to silence him. Invited to speak at the International Drone Summit in D.C this month, Akbar has been forced to cancel his speaking engagement as the U.S. government has refused to grant him a visa. Attempting to speak on his work at Columbia University law school last year, he found himself in the same situation as U.S. officials denied his visa specifically to prevent him from sharing his findings directly with the U.S. public.

According to Akbar, his once positive relationship with the American government first changed after he agreed to take on the case of Karim Khan, a Pakistani man whose son and brother were killed in a drone strike on his home on New Years Eve, 2009. Far from terrorists, his brother was a schoolteacher who held a masters degree in English literature and who in death left behind a wife and two-year-old boy; while his son was a student who worked in one of the few government schools in the area. Instead of joining the Taliban and taking up arms against the U.S. in response to the wanton killing of his family members, Khan enlisted the help of Akbar to use legal means to win justice. For his work to help Khan and countless others who have endured unimaginable suffering at the hands of the CIA operated Predator drones, Akbar has found himself repeatedly blacklisted from the U.S. in order to stifle details of his work.

What is at stake for the CIA is the exposure of the false narrative they have used to justify their continued extrajudicial killings of Pakistanis. As Akbar describes it, . . .

Continue reading. I fear our government is no longer strong enough to tolerate open discussion of its actions—it increasingly depends on secrecy for its primary defense, with the secondary defense being to take strong and vigorous legal action against critics, either causing them great financial harm or, ideally (from the government’s point of view) locking them up in prison for decades. That, in the view of the government, is how to deal with the problem of illegal government actions.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 April 2012 at 10:14 am

Latin-American military men against the War on Drugs

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It’s really not a problem that has a military solution, in fact—it’s like using the military to conduct a war on illiteracy or tobacco-smoking or alcoholism: not every problem has a military solution. Jefferson Morley reports in Salon:

Ending drug prohibition is creeping into the U.S. political debate, thanks to a couple of Latin American military men. Oh sure, George Will’s not-quite endorsement of legalization is noteworthy, but more than one eruditeconservative columnist has gone further before. The views of three Latin American statesman are important but former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz made the same case 23 years ago. The record high in public support for marijuana legalization found in a Gallup poll last year may be a factor, but the Obama administration has declared a “war on pot” since then.

It is the anti-prohibition campaign of Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, one a former general, the other a former defense minister, that has forced the Obama administration to engage critics respectfully for the first time. Perez will be pushing a formal proposal to open discussion of alternative policies at thesummit of American heads of state that President Obama is attending, in Cartagena, Colombia this weekend.

While Obama doesn’t support decriminalization, said his advisor Dan Restrepo this week, “we welcome” the debate. “It’s worth discussing,” Vice President Biden told reporters in Central America last month, “but there’s no possibility the Obama-Biden administration will change its policy on legalization.”

So while there’s no change of heart in Washington, there has been a change of tone. The Obama administration cannot afford to blow off the views of two staunch U.S. allies who have both waged drug wars in their countries, not at a time when public opinion in Latin America is increasingly disenchanted with the militarized approach.

Their approach is tactful. Santos says he doesn’t want to change U.S. policy, but merely hear U.S. officials defend it.

“There are good arguments for legalizing, but I would prefer to reach that conclusion after an objective discussion,” Santos told the Washington Postthis week. “The U.S. says, ‘We don’t support legalization, because the cost of legalization is higher than no legalization.’ But I want to see a discussion where both approaches are analyzed by experts to say, really, the cost is lower or not.”

In a piece for the Guardian, Perez called for an “intergovernmental dialogue based on a realistic approach – drug regulation. Drug consumption, production and trafficking should be subject to global regulations, which means that consumption and production should be legalized but within certain limits and conditions … Legalization therefore does not mean liberalization without controls.” . . .

Continue reading. Of course, Obama has shown himself implacably opposed to any liberalization of drug laws—his Justice Department has ramped up its aggressive actions against medical marijuana, showing that Obama’s stand on that was vacuous.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 April 2012 at 9:59 am

Well, I never: Roasted-mushroom pesto

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Take a look. I have to go to the store, and I think I’ll add mushrooms to the list. (I have basil.)

Written by LeisureGuy

14 April 2012 at 9:49 am

Posted in Daily life, Food, Recipes

What the US Department of Justice is doing…

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The US now prosecutes (and sentences to long prison terms) people exercising their First Amendment rights unless the terrorist group that they support is the IRA or MEKand the person has wealth and/or political power. In those cases, no legal action at all is taken: those terrorist groups are (currently) okay—though of course Saddam Hussein was okay with the US for years and years until we decided we wanted the oil—there’s wonderful photo of Donald Rumsfeld all but embracing the man back in the day.

Adam Serwer in Mother Jones has a good discussion of the case against Tarek Mehanna:

Does posting militant videos on the internet make you a terrorist?

For Tarek Mehanna it just might. Arrested in 2009, Mehanna is a Massachusetts resident whom prosecutors describe as a longtime terrorist wannabe. He isn’t just being prosecuted for trying (and failing) to acquire terrorist training in Yemen and lying to federal investigators. He’s also being tried for posting pro-jihadist material on the internet.

Mehanna’s indictment says that since the early 2000s, he and his friends watched extremist videos on the web and discussed going abroad to receive training in Pakistan and later Yemen. When Mehanna and his alleged accomplice finally reached Yemen in 2004, they were turned away by an old man who told them “all that stuff is gone ever since the planes hit the Twin Towers.” Returning home, prosecutors say, Mehanna committed himself to battling the West by other means: spreading Al Qaeda’s ideology to the masses by translating extremist documents and posting terrorist propaganda on the Internet, in the hopes of converting more to the cause.

“This case is being used by the government to really narrow First Amendment activity in dangerous new ways,” says Nancy Murray of the Massachusetts branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. “It might be speech that horrifies people, but it’s the nature of the First Amendment to protect that speech, unless it’s leading to imminent lawless action.”

Civil liberties advocates say the case represents a slippery slope. In the 2010 case Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, which decided whether or not providing nonviolent aid (such as legal advice) to terrorist groups constitutes material support for terrorism, the Supreme Court ruled that even protected speech can be a criminal act if it occurs at the direction of a terrorist organization. Based on that ruling, you could be convicted of materially supporting terrorism merely for translating a document or putting an extremist video online, depending on your intentions.

“If he’s doing it on behalf of a designated group, he’s providing a service, and that’s the crime,” says Georgetown University law professor David Cole, who argued against the government in Humanitarian Law Project. “It doesn’t matter if the speech is itself violent or nonviolent.” The question is whether Mehanna’s actions were done at the direction of a terrorist group or whether his actions constituted “independent advocacy.”

Convicting Mehanna on conspiracy charges stemming from his alleged attempt to seek terrorist training or lying to investigators is one thing. Convicting him based on his alleged pro-jihadist internet advocacy could establish a legal path to stamping out extremist propaganda on the web. At the same time, in the view of some civil libertarians, the case could narrow the right to free speech by allowing the government to successfully prosecute the expression of radical or unpopular views as a crime. The verdict could come as soon as next week.

The Mehanna prosecution followed . . .

Continue reading.

But Mehanna was tried, found guilty of relying on the First Amendment, and sentenced to 17 years in prison. Here’s the statement he made at sentencing:

APRIL 12, 2012

Read to Judge O’Toole during his sentencing, April 12th 2012.

In the name of God the most gracious the most merciful.

Exactly four years ago this month I was finishing my work shift at a local hospital. As I was walking to my car I was approached by two federal agents. They said that I had a choice to make: I could do things the easy way, or I could do them the hard way. The “easy ” way, as they explained, was that I would become an informant for the government, and if I did so I would never see the inside of a courtroom or a prison cell. As for the hard way, this is it. Here I am, having spent the majority of the four years since then in a solitary cell the size of a small closet, in which I am locked down for 23 hours each day. The FBI and these prosecutors worked very hard-and the government spent millions of tax dollars – to put me in that cell, keep me there, put me on trial, and finally to have me stand here before you today to be sentenced to even more time in a cell.

In the weeks leading up to this moment, many people have offered suggestions as to what I should say to you. Some said I should plead for mercy in hopes of a light sentence, while others suggested I would be hit hard either way. But what I want to do is just talk about myself for a few minutes.

When I refused to become an informant, the government responded by charging me with the “crime” of supporting the mujahideen fighting the occupation of Muslim countries around the world. Or as they like to call them, “terrorists.” I wasn’t born in a Muslim country, though. I was born and raised right here in America and this angers many people: how is it that I can be an American and believe the things I believe, take the positions I take? Everything a man is exposed to in his environment becomes an ingredient that shapes his outlook, and I’m no different.  So, in more ways than one, it’s because of America that I am who I am.

When I was six, I began putting together a massive collection of comic books. Batman implanted a concept in my mind, introduced me to a paradigm as to how the world is set up: that there are oppressors, there are the oppressed, and there are those who step up to defend the oppressed. This resonated with me so much that throughout the rest of my childhood, I gravitated towards any book that reflected that paradigm – Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and I even saw an ethical dimension to The Catcher in the Rye.

By the time I began high school and took a real history class, I was learning just how real that paradigm is in the world. I learned about the Native Americans and what befell them at the hands of European settlers. I learned about how the descendents of those European settlers were in turn oppressed under the tyranny of King George III.

I read about Paul Revere, Tom Paine, and how Americans began an armed insurgency against British forces – an insurgency we now celebrate as the American revolutionary war. As a kid I even went on school field trips just blocks away from where we sit now. I learned about Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner, John Brown, and the fight against slavery in this country. I learned about Emma Goldman, Eugene Debs, and the struggles of the labor unions, working class, and poor. I learned about Anne Frank, the Nazis, and how they persecuted minorities and imprisoned dissidents. I learned about Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and the civil rights struggle.

I learned about Ho Chi Minh, and how the Vietnamese fought for decades to liberate themselves from one invader after another. I learned about Nelson Mandela and the fight against apartheid in South Africa. Everything I learned in those years confirmed what I was beginning to learn when I was six: that throughout history, there has been a constant struggle between the oppressed and their oppressors. With each struggle I learned about, I found myself consistently siding with the oppressed, and consistently respecting those who stepped up to defend them -regardless of nationality, regardless of religion. And I never threw my class notes away. As I stand here speaking, they are in a neat pile in my bedroom closet at home.

From all the historical figures I learned about, one stood out above the rest. I was impressed be many things about Malcolm X, but above all, I was fascinated by the idea of transformation, his transformation. I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie “X” by Spike Lee, it’s over three and a half hours long, and the Malcolm at the beginning is different from the Malcolm at the end. He starts off as an illiterate criminal, but ends up a husband, a father, a protective and eloquent leader for his people, a disciplined Muslim performing the Hajj in Makkah, and finally, a martyr. Malcolm’s life taught me that Islam is not something inherited; it’s not a culture or ethnicity. It’s a way of life, a state of mind anyone can choose no matter where they come from or how they were raised.

This led me to look deeper into Islam, and I was hooked. I was just a teenager, but Islam answered the question that the greatest scientific minds were clueless about, the question that drives the rich & famous to depression and suicide from being unable to answer: what is the purpose of life? Why do we exist in this Universe? But it also answered the question of how we’re supposed to exist. And since there’s no hierarchy or priesthood, I could directly and immediately begin digging into the texts of the Qur’an and the teachings of Prophet Muhammad, to begin the journey of understanding what this was all about, the implications of Islam for me as a human being, as an individual, for the people around me, for the world; and the more I learned, the more I valued Islam like a piece of gold. This was when I was a teen, but even today, despite the pressures of the last few years, I stand here before you, and everyone else in this courtroom, as a very proud Muslim.

With that, my attention turned to what was happening to other Muslims in different parts of the world. And everywhere I looked, I saw the powers that be trying to destroy what I loved. I learned what the Soviets had done to the Muslims of Afghanistan. I learned what the Serbs had done to the Muslims of Bosnia. I learned what the Russians were doing to the Muslims of Chechnya. I learned what Israel had done in Lebanon – and what it continues to do in Palestine – with the full backing of the United States. And I learned what America itself was doing to Muslims. I learned about the Gulf War, and the depleted uranium bombs that killed thousands and caused cancer rates to skyrocket across Iraq.

I learned about the American-led sanctions that prevented food, medicine, and medical equipment from entering Iraq, and how – according to the United Nations – over half a million children perished as a result. I remember a clip from a ’60 Minutes‘ interview of Madeline Albright where she expressed her view that these dead children were “worth it.” I watched on September 11th as a group of people felt driven to hijack airplanes and fly them into buildings from their outrage at the deaths of these children. I watched as America then attacked and invaded Iraq directly. I saw the effects of ’Shock & Awe’ in the opening day of the invasion – the children in hospital wards with shrapnel from American missiles sticking but of their foreheads (of course, none of this was shown on CNN).

I learned about the town of Haditha, where 24 Muslims – including a 76-year old man in a wheelchair, women, and even toddlers – were shot up and blown up in their bedclothes as the slept by US Marines. I learned about Abeer al-Janabi, a fourteen-year old Iraqi girl gang-raped by five American soldiers, who then shot her and her family in the head, then set fire to their corpses. I just want to point out, as you can see, Muslim women don’t even show their hair to unrelated men. So try to imagine this young girl from a conservative village with her dress torn off, being sexually assaulted by not one, not two, not three, not four, but five soldiers. Even today, as I sit in my jail cell, I read about the drone strikes which continue to kill Muslims daily in places like Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. Just last month, we all heard about the seventeen Afghan Muslims – mostly mothers and their kids – shot to death by an American soldier, who also set fire to their corpses.

These are just the stories that make it to the headlines, but one of the first concepts I learned in Islam is that of loyalty, of brotherhood – that each Muslim woman is my sister, each man is my brother, and together, we are one large body who must protect each other. In other words, I couldn’t see these things beings done to my brothers & sisters – including by America – and remain neutral. My sympathy for the oppressed continued, but was now more personal, as was my respect for those defending them.

I mentioned Paul Revere – when he went on his midnight ride, it was for the purpose of warning the people that the British were marching to Lexington to arrest Sam Adams and John Hancock, then on to Concord to confiscate the weapons stored there by the Minuteman. By the time they got to Concord, they found the Minuteman waiting for them, weapons in hand. They fired at the British, fought them, and beat them. From that battle came the American Revolution. There’s an Arabic word to describe what those Minutemen did that day. That word is: JIHAD, and this is what my trial was about.

All those videos and translations and childish bickering over ‘Oh, he translated this paragraph’ and ‘Oh, he edited that sentence,’ and all those exhibits revolved around a single issue: Muslims who were defending themselves against American soldiers doing to them exactly what the British did to America. It was made crystal clear at trial that I never, ever plotted to “kill Americans” at shopping malls or whatever the story was. The government’s own witnesses contradicted this claim, and we put expert after expert up on that stand, who spent hours dissecting my every written word, who explained my beliefs. Further, when I was free, the government sent an undercover agent to prod me into one of their little “terror plots,” but I refused to participate. Mysteriously, however, the jury never heard this.

So, this trial was not about my position on Muslims killing American civilians. It was about my position on Americans killing Muslim civilians, which is that Muslims should defend their lands from foreign invaders – Soviets, Americans, or Martians. This is what I believe. It’s what I’ve always believed, and what I will always believe. This is not terrorism, and it’s not extremism. It’s what the arrows on that seal above your head represent: defense of the homeland. So, I disagree with my lawyers when they say that you don’t have to agree with my beliefs – no. Anyone with commonsense and humanity has no choice but to agree with me. If someone breaks into your home to rob you and harm your family, logic dictates that you do whatever it takes to expel that invader from your home.

But when that home is a Muslim land, and that invader is the US military, for some reason the standards suddenly change. Common sense is renamed ”terrorism” and the people defending themselves against those who come to kill them from across the ocean become “the terrorists” who are ”killing Americans.” The mentality that America was victimized with when British soldiers walked these streets 2 ½ centuries ago is the same mentality Muslims are victimized by as American soldiers walk their streets today. It’s the mentality of colonialism.

When Sgt. Bales shot those Afghans to death last month, all of the focus in the media was on him-his life, his stress, his PTSD, the mortgage on his home-as if he was the victim. Very little sympathy was expressed for the people he actually killed, as if they’re not real, they’re not humans. Unfortunately, this mentality trickles down to everyone in society, whether or not they realize it. Even with my lawyers, it took nearly two years of discussing, explaining, and clarifying before they were finally able to think outside the box and at least ostensibly accept the logic in what I was saying. Two years! If it took that long for people so intelligent, whose job it is to defend me, to de-program themselves, then to throw me in front of a randomly selected jury under the premise that they’re my “impartial peers,” I mean, come on. I wasn’t tried before a jury of my peers because with the mentality gripping America today, I have no peers. Counting on this fact, the government prosecuted me – not because they needed to, but simply because they could.

I learned one more thing in history class: America has historically supported the most unjust policies against its minorities – practices that were even protected by the law – only to look back later and ask: ’what were we thinking?’ Slavery, Jim Crow, the internment of the Japanese during World War II – each was widely accepted by American society, each was defended by the Supreme Court. But as time passed and America changed, both people and courts looked back and asked ’What were we thinking?’ Nelson Mandela was considered a terrorist by the South African government, and given a life sentence. But time passed, the world changed, they realized how oppressive their policies were, that it was not he who was the terrorist, and they released him from prison. He even became president. So, everything is subjective – even this whole business of “terrorism” and who is a “terrorist.” It all depends on the time and place and who the superpower happens to be at the moment.

In your eyes, I’m a terrorist, and it’s perfectly reasonable that I be standing here in an orange jumpsuit. But one day, America will change and people will recognize this day for what it is. They will look at how hundreds of thousands of Muslims were killed and maimed by the US military in foreign countries, yet somehow I’m the one going to prison for “conspiring to kill and maim” in those countries – because I support the Mujahidin defending those people. They will look back on how the government spent millions of dollars to imprison me as a ”terrorist,” yet if we were to somehow bring Abeer al-Janabi back to life in the moment she was being gang-raped by your soldiers, to put her on that witness stand and ask her who the “terrorists” are, she sure wouldn’t be pointing at me.

The government says that I was obsessed with violence, obsessed with ”killing Americans.” But, as a Muslim living in these times, I can think of a lie no more ironic.

-Tarek Mehanna

Written by LeisureGuy

14 April 2012 at 9:43 am

Journalism is not getting the job done—here’s why

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Very interesting column in Salon by Charles Davis, on learning the hard way what journalism is about:

I thought I had done good. As a 22-year-old reporter just out of college, I had just gotten the then-chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Senator Jay Rockefeller, to admit right into my microphone that while he couldn’t deny the Bush administration was potentially funding covert – and illicit – acts of war against Iran, he wasn’t prepared to do a damn thing about it.

Weeks earlier, in March 2007, investigative journalist Seymour Hersh had reported in The New Yorker that U.S. intelligence officials were telling him that President George W. Bush had authorized support for a lovely little Pakistani terrorist organization called “Jundullah,” or Army of God, to wage a low-level war against the Islamic Republic, from bombing police cadets to assassinating high-ranking military officials. ABC News reported the same thing a month later, noting that U.S. officials said the “the relationship with Jundullah is arranged so that the U.S. provides no funding to the group, which would require an official presidential order or ‘finding’ as well as congressional oversight,” reminiscent of how the Reagan administration had used proxies “to destabilize the government of Nicaragua in the 1980s.”

Given the enormity of the charges, which if true could conceivably be on par with the Iran-Contra scandal, one might have expected some sort of reaction in Washington. Indeed, if only for partisan gain, one might have expected recently empowered Democrats in Congress to use the reports to go after a president who at the time was about as popular with the increasingly war-weary American public as ice hockey in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Yet the story was met with a whole lot of nothing. As far as I could tell, no reporter even bothered to ask the relevant members of Congress what they thought about the possibility the Bush administration was fighting another war in the Middle East in such a way as to avoid their oversight. So, being earnest and naïve – some things never change – I, a reporter for a now seemingly defunct company called Capitol News Connection that provided reports for public radio stations across the country, thought I’d ask Mr. Rockefeller what he thought about all this alleged nastiness and what, if anything, could be done.

Catching him as he left the Senate chamber, I turned on my microphone and walked alongside him down a set of stairs. “I wonder if you’ve heard some of these news reports that the Bush administration is backing extremist groups in Pakistan to launch attacks against Iran?” I asked. “Are you familiar with those news reports?”

At first he didn’t respond. Maybe he didn’t hear me? After what seemed like an eternity, he responded, not so much as looking at me, “I’ve seen no intelligence that would verify that.” I pressed on.

“Reports quote administration officials as saying this is going on and it’s being done in a way avoid the oversight of the Intelligence Committee. Is there any way  – ”

He cut me off.

“They’ll go to any lengths to do that,” Rockefeller responded. Here we go, I thought to myself. A story.

“Is there anything you could do in your position as Chairman of the Intelligence Committee to find answers about this, if it is in fact going on?”

Now at the bottom of the staircase, Rockefeller turned and looked at me for the first time. He looked pissed.

“Don’t you understand the way intelligence works?” the 6′ 6” Rockefeller lectured. “Do you think that because I’m Chairman of the Intelligence Committee that I just say I want it, and they give it to me? They control it. All of it. All of it. All the time. I only get, and my committee only gets, what they want to give me.”

There are very few times in life when being patronized by a powerful person, condescension dripping off every word, makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. This was one of those times. Having a microphone helped.

Heading back to my office, I thought I had reporting gold. One of the most powerful men in Washington had just accused the White House of being willing to fight another illegal war without even informing Congress. And he admitted he was – or at least claimed – powerless to stop it, all while being kind of a dick. Perfect for radio.

The reaction I got my from my editor was chilly. “No one really cares about this Pakistan stuff,” he told me. Maybe I could do some reporting about the upcoming Farm Bill instead? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 April 2012 at 9:24 am

Companies that cause suffering should endure some suffering

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Writing a check, especially a check for millions, is not suffering: it is a business expense, and the only suffering is enduring by the victims of the company’s wrong-doing. I believe that top executives (and board members if involved) should serve prison time for offenses. When that was done for a bunch of GE executives, it certainly straightened things up there quite quickly: CEOs may be willing to pay large checks for damages (especially, as in the case of the Ford Pinto that would burn its drivers and passengers alive after modest collisions, if the company makes a net profit: the money saved through the faulty fuel tanks was greater than the damags paid, so it was a net win—even though the company was culpable and even falsified evidence in their efforts to avoid a guilty verdict), but they generally are loath to serve multi-year prison terms, which is exactly what miscreants deserve.

Joe Nocera gets it: he writes in the NY Times:

BP held its annual meeting on Thursday, and, all things considered, the company’s shareholders had much to be happy about. Yes, a small percentage voted against the $6.8 million pay package that the board awarded Bob Dudley, the chief executive. And there were plenty of protesters in attendance, including angry Gulf Coast residents and climate change activists.

Mainly, though, BP shareholders had to be pleased with the progress the company has made since the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Two years after the spill that cost 11 lives and saw millions of gallons of crude poured into the Gulf of Mexico, the company unveiled 2011 net profits of close to $24 billion. And that’s after spending some $22 billion settling claims and paying cleanup costs. “We are fully back to work in the Gulf of Mexico,” Dudley announced.

To be sure, there are still some lawsuits to resolve, brought by several gulf states as well as the federal government. And there is also a criminal investigation, which a Justice Department representative told me was “very much ongoing.”

But not to worry. In addition to the $22 billion it has already spent, BP has another $15.2 billion set aside to cover future fines and payments. No government settlement will come close to that amount. As for the criminal investigation, it will likely result in a deal in which BP agrees to plead guilty — and pays yet more fines — while no actual human being goes to jail. Money solves everything, doesn’t it?

It always has before. As Abrahm Lustgarten brilliantly recounts in his new book, “Run to Failure: BP and the Making of the Deepwater Horizon Disaster,” time after time over the past 15 years, BP put profits over safety and created dangerous conditions for its workers, which resulted in serious industrial accidents that brought criminal investigations. Every time, BP wiggled out of trouble by paying money and promising to do better — and then went right back to its recidivist ways. The implicit message of Lustgarten’s book, which recounts this history in infuriating detail, is that for a multinational like BP, fines and settlements are meaningless punishments. Even a criminal conviction has very little meaning for a faceless corporation. After all, you can’t throw a company in prison.

Take, for instance, the worst of the accidents preceding the Deepwater Horizon explosion. It took place in 2005, at a BP-owned refinery in Texas City, when an explosion killed 15 workers. Lustgarten’s reporting for ProPublica makes it abundantly clear that the problems at the refinery were well known. Necessary maintenance was deferred. Warnings signs were ignored. Managers would plead for money to improve the safety of the plant only to have their budgets savagely cut. Top management in London turned a blind eye to reports recounting problems.

Then, when the inevitable occurred, BP at first blamed it on “operator error.” John Browne, who was then its chief executive — and the man most responsible for creating BP’s culture of putting profits over safety — insisted that the accident, like all the other BP accidents, was just a matter of being unlucky. Lots of people knew better, including a handful of federal investigators who had been tracking the company for years.

Yet, in the end, BP wound up paying $2.1 billion — most of it to compensate victims — and agreed to a felony conviction. These punishments did nothing to change the company. Barely a year later, a BP-owned pipeline in Alaska ruptured, causing a serious oil spill. After that one, BP agreed to plead to a misdemeanor and paid a fine. Lustgarten found government documents suggesting that a number of BP executives were investigated by prosecutors. But nothing ever came of those investigations.

I have argued in the past, mainly in the context of the financial crisis, that the country has been poorly served by the Justice Department’s unwillingness to hold to account big shots like Angelo Mozilo, the former chief executive of Countrywide, whose companies’ illegal practices helped lead us to the brink of financial apocalypse. It has sent a terrible message that there are two kinds of justice: one for the rich and powerful, and another for everybody else. . .

Continue reading. Unfortunately that last statement is true. The US no longer believes in or follows or even attempts to follow the rule of law. President Obama has set the example, declaring that past crimes will not even be investigated. Well, unless the “crimes” involve exposing government misdeeds (whistleblowing), in which case the US will prosecute viciously. For example, Jesselyn Radack reports in Salon:

Former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officer John Kiriakou — the sixth whistleblower the Obama administration has indicted under the Espionage Act for alleged mishandling of classified information — was  arraigned this morning in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. As expected, Kiriakou pleaded “not guilty” to all the charges. No-nonsense U.S District Court Judge Leonie Brinkema set a pre-trial motions hearing for July 20, 2012 and trial for November  26, 2012.

The arraignment was more notable for who was not present than for who was there. Conspicuously absent was the esteemed Patrick Fitzgerald — well-known as the federal prosecutor in charge of the investigation of theValerie Plame CIA leak case, which led to the prosecution and conviction of Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff for perjury—whose name graces the Indictment. Instead the Department of Justice (DOJ) sent four junior-level attorneys, making it a distinct possibility that DOJ knows its case is full of gaping holes. Judge Brinkema even pointed out that one of the DOJ attorneys “had not practiced before this court much” (paraphrased), which was just one of her choice one-liners during the proceedings.

The green DOJ attorneys seem an uneven match for Kiriakou’s formidable defense team, which included legal Titan Plato Cacheris and his partner Bob Trout, were it not for the fact that the DOJ attorneys have the full resources of the entire Executive Branch, including its not-so-secret weapon — secrecy — which was no more evident than when Judge Brinkema forced DOJ to reveal that it still had “lots” of classified discovery to hand over to the defense even though Kiriakou had been charged nearly three months ago (something she also noted).

Judge Brinkema’s No-Nonsense Approach

Judge Brinkema is no stranger to national security cases. She presided over the case against 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui and is currently presiding over the Espionage Act case against another former CIA whistleblower, Jeffery Sterling. In the Sterling case, Judge Brinkema rebuffed the government’s third attempt to subpoena New York Times reporter James Risen to testify about his source, writing in July 2011 that “A criminal trial subpoena is not a free pass for the government to rifle through a reporter’s notebook.” DOJ appealed her ruling to the 4th Circuit.

As might be expected from the judge currently dealing with the government’s shenanigans in the Sterling case, Judge Brinkema “strongly recommend[ed]” that the government turn over discovery sooner rather than later to Kiriakou’s defense team. Tellingly, she cautioned that the government’s production of discovery had been “a problem in other cases.”

It does not take too much reading between the lines to know Brinkema is referring to other Espionage Act cases. In the spectacularly failed case against National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Thomas Drake, whom I represent, DOJ kept potentially exculpatory evidence from Drake’s defense team for months after the Indictment was handed down. For over six months, DOJ failed to produce the obviously exculpatory evidence that one of the allegedly classified documents that formed the basis of an Espionage Act charge was declassified two months after the indictment. DOJ waited ten months to turn over evidence that another document (which formed the basis of a different Espionage Act charge against Drake) had been “. . . published as ‘unclassified’ and had never been deemed ‘classified’ until after it was recovered from Mr. Drake’s home.”

In the Kiriakou arraignment, after pushing the DOJ to specify that it still had “boxes” of classified discovery to turn over, Judge Brinkema then sua sponte edited the proposed discovery order to force DOJ to hand over all potentially-exculpatory material (a.k.a. Brady/Giglio/Jencks Act) earlier than DOJ requested (only 5 calendar days before trial.)  Does the government really think that it’s fair or reasonable to do a discovery document dump on Thanksgiving and make the defense spend the holiday weekend plowing through it while simultaneously preparing for trial?

Considering DOJ’s shady approach to the Espionage Act prosecutions, and that the Kiriakou case is already facing legal (and moral) obstacles, which I discussed today on NPR, Judge Brinkema’s tough, candid approach is a welcome addition to the case.

Kiriakou’s Whistleblowing

As I touched on earlier this week, Kiriakou blew the whistle on waterboarding and exposed torture as policy rather than the actions a few rogue agents. But waterboarding was not Kiriakou’s last disclosure. In his book, The Reluctant Spy: My Secret Life in the CIA’s War on Terrorhe writes critically of the CIA’s torture program, the deception leading into the war in Iraq, and the FBI’s failure to pursue potential leads in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. For those wondering why Kiriakou’s disclosures in his book did more than ruffle a few feathers in the intelligence community, here are a few key quotes: . . .

Continue reading. What’s interesting to me is the overt bad faith and dishonesty exhibited by the Department of Justice, which is fully in keeping with the direction Obama and Holder are taking: using the DOJ to attack what in other countries we call “dissidents”: people who disagree with the government’s official positions. Indeed, the spectacle of this trial seems more suited to, say, mainland China than to the US (as I think of it, but—obviously—not as it has become).

Written by LeisureGuy

14 April 2012 at 9:16 am

How one drifts into false memories

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When you recount something false that you believe to be true, is it a lie? It depends on whether you are accustomed to judging your actions by introspection (looking inside yourself at intentions, motives, and the like) or by observation (looking objectively at your actions as if from the viewpoint of another person, who doesn’t know what’s going on in your head and can see only your behavior, including the content of what you say and write).

In looking introspectively, one is not inclined to call it “lying” because you believed it to be true. In look objectively, the statement you made is false, and thus is what many would term a “lie”—and at the very least, it is misleading to others, and so deserves the “lie” label.

I believe that, in general, you’ll do better for yourself by recording and reflecting on your behavior and words from the third-party perspective, ignoring your introspective rationalizations: judge your actions externally, as other will judge them. Look to their effects, not your motivations.

Here’s an interesting example using Mike Daisey as the example, written by Nate Kornell in Psychology Today:

A recent New York Times series revealed a lot about Apple’s manufacturing process in China. Although the articles were fascinating, they weren’t full of drama or poignant moments. They weren’tstories.

This American Life ran the opposite sort of story. Mike Daisey, a storyteller adopting the guise of a journalist, told about his own investigation of Apple. His story was chock full of dramatic moments. It was also full of lies.

To their credit, This American Life put together an amazing show chronicling in graphic detail what went wrong. In part, it came down to a he-said she-said problem.

Daisey admits that parts of his story aren’t true (at least the way normal people define true). But there are other elements he claims are true. His translator, who was with him the whole time, says they are false. For example, he says he spoke to a factory worker who said she was 13 years old. He also says she spoke to him in English. His translator says none of the workers said they were 13 and none of them (on this day at least) spoke in English.

Whom to Trust?

We have one person (Mr. Daisey) who has spent two years developing and telling this story over and over again, and one (his translator) who hasn’t thought about it at all. So who should we trust? Mike Daisey has been rehearsing and strengthening his memories for years; he’s basically been studying the story. The intuitive answer is he should remember it more accurately. This intuitive answer is wrong.

Police have to be very careful when questioning witnesses. They basically treat a witness’s memory like a crime scene: once you go over it a single time, it’s irreversibly disturbed. For example, asking a biased question, even unintentionally, can make a witness tell their story a little differently. Doing so doesn’t just change the story; it changes the witness’s memory, permanently and irreversibly. And this isn’t just true of witnesses. The more we tell stories, the more our memories change.

Recipe for a False Memory

There’s a basic recipe for making a false memory: . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 April 2012 at 8:53 am

Another comparison/contrast of Australia and US

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James Fallows writes at the Atlantic:

Following these previous items on the compare-and-contrast between two big English-speaking former British colonies, a reader writes (emphasis in original):

I am an Australian subscriber to The Atlantic, and so was glad to see that you have been in Australia and wrote about how it is different from the US. I travel to Seattle once  a year and have found our two countries s remarkably similar but there are some differences that I appreciate:

  • The Australian Prime Minister and state Premiers are voted into their positions by party members (avoiding some government near-gridlock or unpopularity that cannot be resolved until the next general election)
  • there are no primaries before a general election (reducing the long drawn-out, over-emphasis on politics of the US between general elections)
  • the GST ( value-added)  tax is incorporated into the displayed price of goods and services. [JF note: Yes! It is so disorienting to see an item listed at, say, "$25" and then to have the final price be exactly $25. Weird.]
  • our college students do not graduate with the enormous debt that US students do
  • our politicians do not harp on about the world looking up to us because we are exceptional (note the that US is an also-ran in the Western world on many criteria like school education, health, work-life balance, etc.) [JF: It is hard for many Americans to internalize the fact that our living conditions have become second-tier in many ways. If you travel around much in other rich countries, you see the difference.]

These differences are additional to others you and your readers have already noted like:

  • weekend voting that is convenient
  • compulsory voting that inhibits the influence of extremists; by the way, our proportion of ‘spoiled’ ballot papers of about 5 percent is far less than the US’s proportion of non-voters [JF: The legal requirement is that Australians show up at the polling place, or have a decent excuse for not doing so. Once they get the ballot, they may legally "spoil" it, by not voting or otherwise, but not many do.]
  • preferential voting (so that voters who happen to vote for what turns out to be a minor party are not suddenly disenfranchised)
  • public health care
  • no tipping
  • the public Australian Broadcasting Commission’s and Special Broadcasting Service’s many television and radio channels that provide news and views from around the whole world (and are not interrupted by advertising on the ABC).

Despite these differences, I love our visits to the US because:

  • Americans are not as reserved as Australians (I can more easily start a conversation with strangers at US bus stops, for example)
  • your universities are excellent, right down to the level of community colleges
  • your geography and forests are outstanding
  • the general atmosphere in the US  is more optimistic and idealistic (I suppose our  more frequent floods and droughts make us more cynical about the future)
  • book launches and author talks in the US are frequent and free (in Seattle, anyway).

Thank you for bringing up this point about the differences between our two beaut countries.

Anytime! And for what it’s worth, in Australia as in most other countries, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 April 2012 at 8:37 am

Posted in Daily life, Government

Backyard pesticides may contribute heavily to bee colony collapse

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It’s not just agricultural pesticides: most of those suburban lawns and gardens are soaked with various toxins (herbicides, pesticies, and the like). Brandon Keim reports at Wired Science:

The controversy over possible links between massive bee die-offs and agricultural pesticides has overshadowed another threat: the use of those same pesticides in backyards and gardens.

Neonicotinoid pesticides are ubiquitous in everday consumer plant treatments, and may expose bees to far higher doses than those found on farms, where neonicotinoids used in seed coatings are already considered a major problem by many scientists.

“It’s amazing how much research is out there on seed treatments, and in a way that’s distracted everyone from what may be a bigger problem,” said Mace Vaughan, pollinator program director at the Xerces society, an invertebrate conservation group.

The vast majority of attention paid to neonicotinoids, the world’s most popular class of pesticides, has focused on their agricultural uses and possible effects. A growing body of research suggests that, even at non-lethal doses, the pesticides can disrupt bee navigation and make them vulnerable to disease and stress. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 April 2012 at 8:32 am

Jack Black again—and Nancy Boy is better

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A shave to test now whether in fact I prefer Nancy Boy—and yes, I do. Jack Black is not bad, but it’s definitely (for me) a cut below Nancy Boy: not so slick, not so protective, and lacking the great fragrance.

I used my little Omega brush to spread the cream—no working up lather, since it’s not a lathering shave cream. The ARC Weber did its usual sterling job, and a splash of Pashana readies me for the weekend.

Next week I plan to be testing Mike’s Natural shaving soaps:

Six soaps to test, six days that I shave in a week—I bet you’ve already figured out my plan…

Written by LeisureGuy

14 April 2012 at 8:17 am

Posted in Shaving


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